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"The Arms Of All The People
Should Be Taken Away"
Following the armed conflict between American
colonists and British forces at Lexington and Concord on April 19,
l77S, Gen. Thomas Gage, commander of British forces and the royal
governor of Massachusetts, demanded that Boston's citizens deposit
their arms at Faneuil Hall under the care of a Selectman before
being permitted to leave the city, then under siege by the
colonial militia. After obtaining 1778 muskets, 634 pistols and 36
blunderbusses from citizens, the governor had an armed guard
mounted over their arms and refused to permit their owners to
depart from the city.
Illustrated for American Rifleman by Harry Lloyd
BY STEPHEN P. HALBROOK, Ph.D., J.D.
As we celebrate
the Bicentennial of the Bill of Rights, evidence has been
discovered that shows the Second Amendment was prompted by
British plans to disarm each and every American.
In 1777, William Knox, Under Secretary of State in the British
Colonial Office. circulated a proposal entitled "What is Fit to be
Done with America?" Knox advocated the creation of a ruling
aristocracy loyal to the Crown, establishment of the Church of
England throughout the colonies and an unlimited power to tax. To
keep them servile. Knox offered the panacea of disarming all of the
people and relying solely on a standing army:
- The Militia Laws should be repealed and none suffered to be
re-enacted, & the Arms of all the People should be taken
away, & every piece of Ordnance removed into the King's
Stores, nor should any Foundry or manufactory of Arms, Gunpowder,
or Warlike Stores, be ever suffered in America, nor should any
Gunpowder, Lead, Arms or Ordnance be imported into it without
License; they will have but little need of such things for the
future, as the King's Troops, Ships & Forts will be sufficient
to protect them from any danger.'
It all began in September 1768, when rumors of an impending
occupation by British troops, allegedly to suppress riots and collect
taxes, inflamed Boston. A group of the freeholders led by James Otis
and John Hancock met at Faneuil Hall and passed several resolutions,
including the following:
- WHEREAS, by an Act of Parliament, of the first of King
William and Queen Mary, it is declared, that the
Subjects being Protestants, may have Arms for their Defence; it is
the Opinion of this town, that the said Declaration is founded in
Nature, Reason and sound Policy, and is well adapted for the
necessary Defence of the Community.
- And Forasmuch, as by a good and wholesome Law of
this Province, every listed Soldier and other Householder (except
Troopers, who by Law are otherwise to be provided) shall always be
provided with a well fix'd Firelock, Musket, Accoutrements and
Ammunition, as in said Law particularly mentioned, to the
Satisfaction of the Commission officers of the Company; . . .
VOTED, that those of the Inhabitants, who may at present be
unprovided, be and hereby are requested duly to observe the said
Law at this Time.2
A convention of Boston and several other towns met to consider the
resolutions, and then petitioned the royal governor. When the
governor rejected the petition, a patriot "A.B.C." (probably Samuel
"But there are some
persons who would. . . perswade the people never to make use
of their constitutional rights. . ."
- It is reported that the Governor has said, that he has
Three Things in Command from the Ministry, more grievous to the
People, than any Thing hitherto made known. It is conjectured 1st,
that the Inhabitants of this Province are to be disarmed. 2d. The
Province to be governed by Martial Law. And 3d, that a Number of
Gentlemen who have exerted themselves in the Cause of their
Country, are to be seized and sent to Great Britain.
- Unhappy America! When thy Enemies are rewarded with Honors
and Riches; but thy Friends punished and ruined only for asserting
thy Rights, and pleading for thy Freedom.3
Two days later, the British troops landed in Boston and took over
key points, including Faneuil Hall.4 However, only one report could
be found that the inhabitants were being disarmed:
- Advices, so late as the 10th of October, mention
- That part of the troops had been quartered in the castle
and barracks, and the remainder of them in some old empty
- That the inhabitants had been ordered to bring in their
arms, which in general they had complied with; and that those in
possession of any after the expiration of a notice given them,
were to take the consequences.5
It is difficult to imagine much compliance with such an order,
especially since such reports were not widespread with extensive
protests. However, disarming the colonists was clearly being
contemplated. From London, "it is said orders well soon be given to
prevent the exportation of either naval or military stores, gun
powder, & c. to any part of North-America. "6
In an article he signed "E.A.," Samuel Adams recalled the English
Bill of Rights as explained by Sir William Blackstone:
- At the revolution, the British constitution was again
restor'd to its original principles, declared inn the bill of
rights; which was afterwards pass'd into a law, and stands as a
bulwark to the natural rights of subjects. "To vindicate these
rights, says Mr. Blackstone, when actually violated or
attack'd, the subjects of England are entitled first to the
regular administration and free course of justice in the
courts of law--next to the right of petitioning the King
and parliament for redress of grievances--and lastly, to the
right of having and using arms for self-preservation and
defence." These he calls "auxiliary subordinate rights, which
serve principally as barriers to protect and maintain
inviolate the three great and primary rights of personal
security, personal liberty and private property": And
that of having arms for their defense he tells us is
"a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural
right of resistance and self preservation, when the sanctions
of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the
violence of oppression. "--How little do those persons
attend to the rights of the constitution, if they know anything
about them, who find fault with a late vote of this town, calling
upon the inhabitants to provide themselves with arms for their
defence at any time; but more especially, when they had reason
to fear, there would be a necessity of the means of self
preservation against the violence of oppresslon.7
" . . upon the inhabitants lodging their arms in
Faneuil Hall . (they) may depart . . . from the town. .
GEN. THOMAS GAGE
APRIL 22, 1775
Adams made clear that private citizens could use arms to protect
themselves from military oppression. He went on to point out that the
same persons who opposed the right to have arms also opposed the
right to petition:
- But there are some persons, who would, if possibly they
could, perswade the people never to make use of their
constitutional rights or terrify them from doing it. No
wonder that a resolution of this town to keep arms for its
own defence, should be represented as having at bottom a secret
intention to oppose the landing of the King's troops: when
those very persons, who gave it this colouring, had before
represented the peoples petitioning their Sovereign, as
proceedingirom a factious and rebellious spirit. . .
A pass issued by order
of British Gov. Gage
forbade colonists from
taking arms out of
Boston during the sedge.
For the next half decade, the disputes escalated, from the
shooting of civilians "armed" with sticks (what became known as the
Boston Massacre in 1770), to the embargo on shipments of arms to
America and the self-arming of the populace into militia in 1774. In
September 1774, pro-British rulers in Boston proposed the disarming
of the people, but the measure was voted down, perhaps because of the
protest it would have evoked:
- It is said, it was proposed in the Divan last Wednesday,
that the inhabitants of this Town should be disarmed, and that
some of the newfangled Counsellors consented thereto, but happily
a majority was against it.--The report of this extraordinary
measure having been put in Execution by the Soldiery was
propagated through the Country, with some other exaggerated
stories, and, by what we are told, if these Reports had not been
contradicted, we should by this date have had 40 or 50,000 men
from the Country (some of whom were on the march) appear'd for our
Nonetheless, by early 1775, the British began a de facto policy of
disarming the colonists.
What was actually going on may be exemplified by the experience of
one Thomas Ditson, who was tarred and feathered by British soldiers.
In his affidavit, Ditson claimed, "I enquired of some Townsmen who
had any Guns to sell; one whom I did not know, replied he had a very
fine Gun to sell."9 Since the one who offered the gun was a soldier,
- I asked him if he had any right to sell it, he reply'd
he had, and that, the Gun was his to dispose of at any time; I
then ask'd him whether he tho't the Sentry would not take it
from me at the Ferry, as I had heard that some Persons had
their Guns taken from them, but never tho't there was any law
against trading with a Soldier; . . . I told him I would give
four Dollars if there was no risque in carrying it over the
Ferry; he said there was not . . . I was afraid . . . that
there was something not right . . . and left the Gun, and
coming away he followed me and urg'd the Gun upon
When he finally paid money to the soldier, several other soldiers
appeared and seized Ditson, whom they proceeded to tar and feather.
However, instead of entrapment, the soldier swore in his affidavit
that it was a case of a rebel trying to obtain arms and urging a
soldier to desert. The citizen said "that he would buy more Firelocks
of the Deponent, and as many as he could get any other Soldier to
The Boston Massacre:
between the American
colonists and armed
British troops flamed
into violence on
March 5, 1770.
ENGRAVING BY PAUL REVERE
The British were wise to the American game, and the following
ammunition seizure reported from Boston also alleged that soldiers
killed people along the road:
- The Neck Guard seized 13,425 musket cartridges with
ball, (we suppose through the information of some dirty
scoundrel, of which we have now many among us) and about
300 lb. of ball, which we were carrying into the country this
was private property.--The owner applied to the
General first, but he absolutely refused to deliver
The Revolutionary War was sparked when militiamen exercising at
Lexington refused to give up their arms. The widely published
American account of April 19, 1775, began with the order shouted by a
- "Disperse you Rebels--Damn you, throw down your Arms
and disperse. " Upon which the Troops huzz'd, and immediately
one or two Officers discharged their Pistols, which were
instantaneously followed by the Firing of four or five of the
Soldiers, then there seemed to be a general discharge from the
Three days later Gen. Gage represented to the Selectmen of Boston
that "there was a large body of men in arms" hostilely assembled, and
that the inhabitants could be injured if the soldiers attacked.14 The
next day a town committee met with Gage, who promised "that upon the
inhabitants in general lodging their arms in Faneuil Hall, or any
other convenient place, under the care of the Selectmen, marked with
the names of the respective owners, that all such inhabitants as are
inclined, may depart from the town .. . And that the arms aforesaid
at a suitable time would be return'd to the owners."15
"Disperse you damn rebels--Damn you, throw down your
arms and Disperse.
MAJ. JOHN PITCAIRN
APRIL 19, 1775
Bostonians proceeded to turn in 1778 muskets, 634 pistols, 973
bayonets and 38 blunderbusses.16 However, when "the inhabitants gave
up their arms and ammunition--to the care of the Selectmen: the
General then set a guard over the arms...."17 Gage then refused to
permit the people to leave. "The same day a town meeting was to be
held in Boston, when the inhabitants were determined to demand the
arms they had deposited in the hands of the select men, or have
liberty to leave town."18
An anonymous patriot addressed "the perfidious, the truce breaking
Thomas Gage" as follows
- But the single breach of the capitulation with them
(the people of Boston), after they had religiously
fulfilled their part, must brand your name and memory with eternal
infamy--the proposal came from you to the inhabitants by the
medium of one of your officers, through the Selectmen, and was,
that if the inhabitants would deposit their fire-arms in the
hands of the Selectmen, to be returned to them after a
reasonable time, you would give leave to the inhabitants to
remove out of town with all their effects, without any let or
molestation. The town punctually complied, and you remain an
infamous monument of perfidy, for which an Arab, Wild Tartar or
Savage would despise you!!!'9
On June 12, Gage proclaimed martial law and offered a pardon to
all who would lay down their arms except Samuel Adams and John
Hancock.20 A patriot responded with a poem entitled "Tom Gage's
Proclamation," which told how the general had sent an expedition "the
men of Concord to disarm" and how he afterwards reflected:
e'er l draw the vengeful sword,
I have thought fit to send abroad,
This present gracious Proclamation,
Of purpose mild the demonstration;
That whoseoe'er keeps gun or pistol,
I'll spoil the motion of his systole;
Or, whip his breech, or cut his weason
As has the measure of his Treason:--
But every one that will lay down
His hanger bright, and musket brown,
Shall not be beat, nor bruis'd, not bang'd,
Much less for past offences, hang'd,
But on surrendering his toledo,
Go to and fro unhurt as we do:--
But then I must, out of this p/an, lock
Both SAMUEL ADAMS and JOHN HANCOCK;
For those vile traitors (like debentures)
Must be truck'd up at all adventures;
As any proffer of a pardon,
Would only tend those rogues to burden:--
But every other mother's son,
The instant he destroys his gun,
(For thus cloth run the King's command)
May, if he will, come kiss my hand.--
* * *
Meanwhile let all, and every one Who loves his
life, foresake his gun.21
Gage's seizures and attempts to seize the guns, pistols, Brown
Bess muskets and swords known as hangers and toledos of the
individual citizens of Boston who were not even involved in the
hostilities sent a message to all of the colonists that the right to
keep and bear private arms was in a perilous condition. A report from
London that the British were coming to seize the arms of all the
colonists hit the headlines in Virginia and Maryland:
- It is reported, that on the landing of the General
Officers, who have sailed for America, a proclamation will be
published throughout the provinces inviting the Americans to
deliver up their arms by a certain stipulated day; and that
such of the colonists as are afterwards proved to carry arms
shall be deemed rebels, and be punished accordingly 22
The final break came when the Continental Congress adopted the
Declaration of Causes of Taking Up Arms on July 6, 1775, which had
been drafted by Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson and which
- It was stipulated that the said inhabitants having
deposited their arms with their own magistrates, should have
liberty to depart.... They accordingly delivered up their arms,
but in open violation of honor, in defiance of the obligations of
treaties, which even savage nations esteem sacred, the governor
ordered the arms deposited as aforesaid, that they might be
preserved for the owners, to be seized by a body of soldiers.
Debate now turned to war, and William Knox's 1777 plan that "the
Arms of all the People should be taken away" was far too late, had it
ever been possible.
The above is only a small portion of newspaper extracts showing
British attempts to disarm the Americans in the years 1768-1775. The
grievances expressed led to the adoption of right to bear arms
guarantees in the state Declarations of Rights beginning in 1776 and
the federal Second Amendment in 1789.
The British resorted to every possible tactic to disarm the
Americans--entrapment, false promises of "safekeeping," banning
imports, direct seizure and finally shooting persons bearing arms. As
the Bicentennial of the Second Amendment approaches, the American
people must make a renewed commitment to understand the historical
origins of the Bill of Rights, in order to preserve their
1. Sources Of American Independence 176 (H. Peckman ed.
1978). Emphasis added.
2. Boston Evening Posl, Sept. 19, 1768, at 1, col. 3, and
2, col. 1.
3. Boston Gazette, and Country Journal, Sept. 26,
1768, at 3 cols. 1-2.
4. Boston Evening Post, Oct. 3, 1768, at 3, col. 2
(includes an account of the invasion).
5. New York Journal, Feb. 2, 1769, at 2, col. 2.
6. Boston Gazette, and Country Journal, Oct. 17,
1768, at 2, col. 3.
7. Id., Feb. 27, 1769, at 3, col. 1. Adams' authorship is
confirmed in I H. Cushing ea., The Writings Of Samuel Adams
8a. Massachusetts Spy, Sept. 8, 1774, at 3, col. 3.
9. Massachusetts Gazette; and Boston Weekly News-Letter,
March 17, 1775, at 3, col. 1.
11. Id., col. 2.
12. Connecticut Courant, April 3, 1775, at 2, col. 2.
13. Essex Gazette, April 25, 1775, at 3, col. 3.
14. Attested copy of Proceeding between Gage and Selectmen, April
22, 1775, reprinted in Connecticut Courant, July 17, 1775, at
1, col. 3, and 4, col. 1.
15. Id. at 4. Col. 2 (April 23, 1775).
16. R. Frothingham, History Of The Siege Of The Boston
17. Connecticut Courant, May 8, 1775, at 3, col. I.
18. Connecticut Journal and New-Haven PostBoy. May
19, 1775, at 6, col. 2.
19. Connecticut Courant, June 19, 1775, at 4, col. 2.
20. Connecticut Journal and New-Haven PostBoy, June
21, 1775, at 3, cols. 1-2.
21. Connecticut Courant, July 17, 1775, at 4, col. l.
22. Virginia Gazette, June 24, 1775, at 1, col. 1;
Maryland Gazette, July 20, 1775, at 1, col. 2
23. Connecticut Courant, July 17, 1775 at 2, col. 1. The
Declaration was published in virtually every colonial newspaper.
The Continental Congress adopted a similar address on "To the
People of Ireland" which complained that "the citizens petitioned the
General for permission to leave the town, and he promised, on
surrendering their arms, to permit them to depart with their other
effects; they accordingly surrendered their arms, and the General
violated his faith...." Id., Aug. 21, 1775, at 1, col. 3.
First Published in the American Rifleman , March, 1989
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